HOT HATCH RIPOSTE
With the dual-duty Megane RS, Renault returns with a vengeance
The rivalry between France and Germany has spilled from the football field to the car park. There is debate about who invented the hot hatch — a small car with a powerful engine — but both countries have excelled in the genre over the years.
Germany has the upper hand with the allrounder VW Golf GTI and its derivatives.
France’s riposte is the new generation Renault Megane RS, the badge returning after a two-year hiatus.
French hot hatches are typically brilliant to drive on a race track but the German equivalent is usually better to live with day-to-day.
When France has reacted to criticisms — by softening the next model — it has often ended up with a blancmange.
Is the new Megane RS the first French hot hatch to break the mould? It’s off to a good start with the adoption of a five-door body in place of the previous three-door.
Purists are up in arms but the new Megane RS wouldn’t exist if it weren’t a five-door, due to the drop in demand for three-doors globally.
Another move towards the mainstream is the option of an automatic for the first time.
A six-speed manual is still available but the six-speed twin-clutch auto opens the Megane RS to buyers who may not have considered it before and takes the grind out of the daily commute.
Key ingredients remain: bigger brakes, broader footprint, sports suspension, snug seats and more mumbo under the bonnet.
The 2.0-litre turbo — long a staple of the hot-hatch class — has been replaced by a 1.8litre turbo, which Renault claims is the most powerful of its type in the world.
A bigger car than its predecessor, the Megane RS has put on 48kg (to 1427kg) for the manual and added 71kg (1450kg) for the auto — largely negating the power gain.
However, thanks to the wonders of gear ratios Renault has still managed to extract brisk performance.
Hot hatches aren’t only about straight-line speed but in the industry-standard 0-100km/h test we stopped the clock at 6.0 seconds in the manual and 6.2 seconds in the auto, which has a different spread of ratios. The official claim is 5.8 seconds.
The manual gearshift is OK but a bit notchier than rivals. The auto is one of the better twin-clutches around although it displays a subtle shudder at car park speeds.
Cars like this, however, are about carving corners. The Megane RS excels in this regard thanks to sticky tyres, well sorted suspension and trick rear-wheel steering, a first for the class.
It pivots the back tyres up to 1 degree in the same direction as the front wheels at high speeds, and up to 2.7 degrees in the opposite direction in tight turns at low speeds.
Five driving modes make the suspension softer or stiffer, automatic gear shifts gentle or abrupt, and switch the exhaust from boring to boy racer.
The muffler’s snap, crackle and pop are more pronounced in the auto thanks to the build-up in pressure in the split-second between gear changes. The manual is oddly quiet.